The official biography of german Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer begins with his birth in 1948 and then jumps ahead to 1982 when he became a member of Germany's environmental party, the Greens. The blurb on the ministry's website neatly glosses over Fischer's role as a wild-haired student radical in the 1960s and '70s, a controversial past that has come back to embarrass him.
He was forced on the defensive last week after Stern magazine published photos of a helmet-wearing Fischer at a 1973 street demonstration, beating a policeman. The conservative opposition used the episode to call for Fischer's resignation. "It's intolerable that Germany has as a Foreign Minister a former violent criminal who stomped on an unarmed man lying on the ground," said Günther Beckstein, a leader of the Christian Social Union in Bavaria. While Fischer ruled out a resignation, he expressed regret for his actions. "A credible break with this time as a street fighter means that you apologize for injustice you committed," Fischer told the Tagesspiegel newspaper.
Potentially more damaging to Fischer was a report in the conservative Die Welt that prosecutors in Frankfurt have reopened an investigation into a firebombing of a police car in 1976. While Fischer is not among the accused, the newspaper speculated that as a radical political leader he could be culpable.
Media attention is focused on Fischer's past because he is testifying this week at the trial of Hans-Joachim Klein, 52, a former associate. Klein is accused of helping the terrorist Illich Ramirez Sanchez, famed as Carlos the Jackal, attack a meeting of oil ministers in Vienna in 1975, in which three people were killed. Klein had lived in France for 20 years under an assumed name until he was arrested last year. In another incident, the killing of a politician, he allegedly used Fischer's car to ferry weapons, which Fischer said he knew nothing about. Asked whether testifying in the Klein case would be embarrassing, the Foreign Minister replied: "I do not regard it as awkward. Without my biography, I would be a different person today and I would not like that at all."
Fischer has never denied his radical past, and his image as a black sheep who changed his political wool has made him one of Germany's most popular politicians, even though his Green Party is rapidly losing support. A poll last week published in Die Woche showed him to be Germany's most admired politician, with only 18% of those surveyed believing he should resign. In part, that's because he is no longer radical. Fischer gave up his beard and jeans for Italian designer suits. He supported nato intervention in Kosovo. His best-selling book was not about leftist politics, but instead how he changed his life by quitting drinking and taking up running. The closest Fischer has come to violence recently was when he was hit by a paint bomb thrown by protesters at a Green Party meeting two years ago.
As for the photographed scuffle, Fischer admitted that he was a militant who squatted in houses that were cleared by the police. "We defended ourselves," he said. "We threw stones. We were beaten up, but we also took a good swipe. I have never concealed anything in this regard." Still, he tried to put the episode behind him, chatting on the phone with Rainer Marx, the policeman whom he attacked. The 48-year-old Marx, who retired last year for health reasons, said he had already forgiven Fischer because of all he achieved as a politician.
That echoed the sentiment of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who threw his support behind Fischer, saying, "With his work he has proven that he is a good representative of our foreign policy." Daniel Cohn-Bendit, an ex-radical student leader and now a member of France's Greens, remarked: "At long last there is a German politician who says, 'Yes, it was me.'" He lamented that other politicians haven't come forward to admit their Communist or Nazi pasts.
In published interviews, Fischer acknowledged having a central role in planning demonstrations but said he rejected escalating the protests by inciting violence. "I always thought that was wrong, even suicidal," Fischer said. "The whole time, for God's sake, we were working hard against this step to armed struggle, to terrorism."
Fischer says he has now concluded that while violence should be rejected, it shouldn't be ruled out. "I have never been a pacificist and will never become one, because I never exclude the reason to fight for your freedom and for your life." It was on this ground that he enthusiastically supported the Western intervention in Kosovo. Like most successful ex-student radicals these days, Fischer has spent the last 20 years of his career running — toward the safe ground of the political center.